Matt O’Brien And Christina Larson, The Associated Press
Published Tuesday, May 5, 2020 8:52AM EDT
As governments around the world consider how to monitor new coronavirus outbreaks while reopening their societies, many are starting to bet on smartphone apps to help stanch the pandemic.
But their decisions on which technologies to use — and how far those allow authorities to peer into private lives — are highlighting some uncomfortable trade-offs between protecting privacy and public health.
“There are conflicting interests,” said Tina White, a Stanford University researcher who first introduced a privacy-protecting approach in February. “Governments and public health (agencies) want to be able to track people” to minimize the spread of COVID-19, but people are less likely to download a voluntary app if it is intrusive, she said.
Containing infectious disease outbreaks boils down to a simple mantra: test, trace and isolate. Today, that means identifying people who test positive for the novel coronavirus, tracking down others they might have infected, and preventing further spread by quarantining everyone who might be contagious.
That second step requires an army of healthcare workers to question coronavirus carriers about recent contacts so those people can be tested and potentially isolated.
Smartphone apps could speed up that process by collecting data about your movements and alerting you if you’ve spent time near a confirmed coronavirus carrier. The more detailed that data, the more it could help regional governments identify and contain emerging disease “hot spots.” But data collected by governments can also be abused by governments — or their private-sector partners.
Some countries and local governments are issuing voluntary government-designed apps that make information directly available to public health authorities.
In Australia, more than 3 million people have downloaded such an app touted by the prime minister, who compared it to the ease of applying sunscreen and said more app downloads would bring about a “more liberated economy and society.” Utah is the first U.S. state to embrace a similar approach, one developed by a social media startup previously focused on helping young people hang out with nearby friends.
Both these apps record a digital trail of the strangers an individual encountered. Utah’s goes even further, using a device’s location to help track which restaurants or stores a user has visited.
The app is “a tool to help jog the memory of the person who is positive so we can more readily identify where they’ve been, who they’ve been in contact with, if they choose to allow that,” said Angela Dunn, Utah’s state epidemiologist.
A competing approach under development by tech giants Apple and Google limits the information collected and anonymizes what it pulls in so that such personalized tracking isn’t possible.
Apple and Google have pushed for public health agencies to adopt their privacy-oriented model, offering an app-building interface they say will work smoothly on billions of phones when the software rolls out sometime in May. Germany and a growing number of European countries have aligned with that approach, while others, such as France and the UK, have argued for more government access to app data.
Most coronavirus-tracking apps rely on Bluetooth, a decades-old short-range wireless technology, to locate other phones nearby that are running the same app.
The Bluetooth apps keep a temporary record of the signals they encounter. If one person using the app is later confirmed to have COVID-19, public health authorities can use that stored data to identify and notify other people who may have been exposed.
Apple and Google say that apps built to their specifications will work across most iPhones and Android devices, eliminating compatibility problems. They have also forbidden governments to make their apps compulsory and are building in privacy protections to keep stored data out of government and corporate hands and ease concerns about surveillance.
For instance, these apps rely on encrypted “peer to peer” signals sent from phone to phone; these aren’t stored in government databases and are designed to conceal individual identities and connections. Public-health officials aren’t even in the loop; these apps would notify users directly of their possible exposure and urge them to get tested.
In the U.S., developers are pitching their apps directly to state and local governments. In Utah, the social media company Twenty sold state officials on an approach combining Bluetooth with satellite-based GPS signals. That would let trained health workers help connect the dots and discover previously hidden clusters of infection.
“It’s unlikely that automated alerts are going to be enough,” said Jared Allgood, Twenty’s chief strategy officer and a Utah resident, citing estimates that the peer-to-peer models would need most people participating to be effective.
North and South Dakota are pursuing a similar model after a local startup repurposed its existing Bison Tracker app, originally designed to connect fans of North Dakota State University’s athletic teams.
Regardless of the approach, none of these apps will be effective at breaking chains of viral infections unless countries like the U.S. can ramp up coronavirus testing and hire more health workers to do manual outreach.
Another big limitation: many people, particularly in vulnerable populations, don’t carry smartphones.
In Singapore, for instance, a large migrant worker population lives in cramped dorms, makes about $15 a day, and powers the city’s previously booming construction industry — but smartphone usage in this group is low. When the Southeast Asian city-state launched its tracing app in March, total confirmed COVID-19 cases were well under 1,000. Then in early April, a rash of new infections in worker dormitories pushed that number to more than 18,000, triggering new lockdown policies.
“If we can find a way to automate some of the detective work with technology, I think that would be a significant help,” said Nadia Abuelezam, a disease researcher at Boston College. “It won’t be all we need.”
COVID-19 study linking hydroxychloroquine, death risk retracted from medical journal – Global News
Three of the authors of an influential article that found hydroxychloroquine increased the risk of death in COVID-19 patients retracted the study on Thursday, citing concerns about the quality of the data behind it.
The anti-malarial drug has been controversial in part due to support from U.S. President Donald Trump, as well as implications of the study published in British medical journal the Lancet last month.
The three authors said Surgisphere, the company that provided the data, would not transfer the full dataset for an independent review and that they “can no longer vouch for the veracity of the primary data sources.”
The fourth author of the study, Dr. Sapan Desai, the CEO of Surgisphere, declined to comment on the retraction.
The observational study published in the Lancet on May 22 looked at 96,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, some treated with the decades-old malaria drug. It claimed that those treated with hydroxychloroquine or the related chloroquine had higher risk of death and heart rhythm problems than patients who were not given the medicines.
WHO halts hydroxychloroquine clinical trials
Several clinical trials were put on hold after the study was published. The World Health Organization, which paused hydroxychloroquine trials after The Lancet study was released, said on Wednesday it was ready to resume trials.
Many scientists voiced concern about the study. Nearly 150 doctors signed an open letter to the Lancet last week calling the article’s conclusions into question and asking to make public the peer review comments that preceded publication.
“I did not do enough to ensure that the data source was appropriate for this use,” the study’s lead author, Harvard Medical School Professor Mandeep Mehra, said in a statement. “For that, and for all the disruptions – both directly and indirectly – I am truly sorry.”
Surgisphere was not immediately available for comment.
The Lancet in a statement said, “there are many outstanding questions about Surgisphere and the data that were allegedly included in this study.”
© 2020 Reuters
N.B. to welcome Canadians with immediate family, property in province – CBC.ca
New Brunswick plans to open its borders to Canadians who have immediate family in the province or who own property, starting June 19, provided they self-isolate for 14 days, Premier Blaine Higgs announced Thursday.
Cabinet and the all-party COVD-19 committee have also deemed attending funerals in New Brunswick essential travel, he told reporters during a news conference in Fredericton.
The decision to loosen restrictions comes the same day New Brunswick had its first COVID-19-related death and a new confirmed case — both linked to a long-term care facility in the Campbellton region, where there is an outbreak.
Daniel Ouellette, 84, who tested positive for COVID-19 at the Manoir de la Vallée in Atholville last week, died Thursday morning at the Campbellton Regional Hospital.
Four other elderly residents and four employees have also tested positive for the respiratory disease, including the latest case, a health-care worker in their 20s.
They are among a cluster of 15 active cases now in the Campbellton region, also known as Zone 5.
Higgs said he, like all New Brunswickers, received the news “with a heavy heart” and offered his condolences.
But the rest of the province will move forward with the next phase of the yellow level of the COVID-19 recovery plan tomorrow, as scheduled, he said. The Campbellton region will remain under the stricter orange phase.
“We are grieving today, but we are also moving forward today,” said Higgs, describing it as a “combination of sadness and hope.”
Officials have linked the outbreak that started May 21 to a medical professional who travelled to Quebec for personal reasons and returned to work without self-isolating for the required 14 days.
Dr. Jean Robert Ngola told Radio-Canada’s program La Matinale on Tuesday he’s not sure whether he picked up the coronavirus during the trip to Quebec or from a patient he saw in his office on May 19 who later tested positive.
Ngola, who has been suspended and is under investigation by the RCMP, said he made an overnight return trip to Quebec to pick up his four-year-old daughter because her mother had to travel to Africa for her own father’s funeral.
He drove straight there and back with no stops and had no contact with anyone, he said, and none of his family members had any COVID-19 symptoms at the time.
He did not self-isolate upon returning, he said. He went to work at the Campbellton Regional Hospital the next day.
“Maybe it was an error in judgment,” said Ngola, pointing out that workers, including nurses who live in Quebec, cross the border each day with no isolation required.
Minister defends northern border crossing
The province’s public safety minister is defending a border crossing that residents of a small village near Campbellton fear is letting in too many people from out of the province.
On Tuesday, Tide Head Mayor Randy Hunter said there were more vehicles with Quebec licence plates in the area than there should be considering COVID-19 restrictions and that the province is giving the wrong impression about how much traffic there is at the crossing.
“The premier’s reporting and the news is reporting perhaps 60 to 70 cars a day, well that is not factual,” said Hunter.
“I know people that work for public safety there and the average [number of cars] on that bridge is about 200 a day.”
The checkpoint is located on the New Brunswick side of the border, a short distance from the bridge to Matapédia, Que.
But Public Safety Minister Carl Urquhart said there was a bit missing in that interpretation.
There are about 200 vehicles making that crossing every day, but only 65 of them would be private vehicles.
“Approximately 65 [private vehicles] the other day and then 130 commercial. So you’re looking at approximately 200 all together,” said Urquhart.
Urquhart said public safety officers are the ones that determine whether someone can come into the province or not, but that commercial vehicles are checked to make sure they’re actually making deliveries.
Urquhart said he’s convinced there isn’t a security issue at the border, and while he would love to send more public safety officers up there, they’re needed elsewhere.
“If I had a lot more people I could put them all over the province,” said Urquhart.
“You have to work with all you have.”
What to do if you have symptoms
People concerned they might have COVID-19 can take a self-assessment on the government website at gnb.ca.
Public Health says symptoms shown by people with COVID-19 have included: a fever above 38 C, a new cough or worsening chronic cough, sore throat, runny nose, headache, new onset of fatigue, new onset of muscle pain, diarrhea, loss of sense of taste or smell, and difficulty breathing. In children, symptoms have also included purple markings on the fingers and toes.
People with two of those symptoms are asked to:
Study authors retract influential Lancet hydroxychloroquine article – National Post
NEW YORK — Three of the authors of an influential article that found hydroxychloroquine increased the risk of death in COVID-19 patients retracted the study on concerns about the quality of the data in the study.
They said that Surgisphere, the company that provided the data, would not transfer the full dataset for an independent review and they “can no longer vouch for the veracity of the primary data sources.”
The study was published in British medical journal the Lancet last month. (Reporting by Michael Erman Editing by Chris Reese)
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